Budapest: New life in old ruins | DW Travel | DW | 06.04.2018
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Budapest: New life in old ruins

Unusual galleries and bars are attracting more and more tourists to the Hungarian capital's Jewish quarter. Unlike Hungary's prime minister, the alternative art scene does not approve of closed borders.

Zoltán Jancsó's cellphone rings again. He laughs apologetically and runs up the narrow stairway that leads from his gallery into the daylight. His assistant apologizes for him: "Zoltan is very busy  - and chaotic." That also describes the Jancsó Art Gallery: Persian carpets overlap each other, a table stands in the middle of the room where two painters are having a discussion, and farther back, among half-finished pictures and art supplies, a woman is painting pink tones onto a canvas. 

Art hangout on Kazinczy Street

Ungarn | Jüdische Viertel in Budapest | Künstler Zoltan Jancso (DW/M. Ostwald)

Artist Zoltán Jancsó in front of his small gallery on Kazinczy Street

The boundaries between exhibition space, studio and living room blur. On the walls are pictures that defy classification: abstracts next to landscapes, here and there a study of a female nude in an attractive pose or a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. 

In the Jancsó Art Gallery, anyone can paint and exhibit. It opened almost spontaneously, in 2015: Zoltan Jancsó rented a disused metalsmith's workshop as a studio. Soon locals and tourists were dropping in. Many looked; some wanted to join in. 

Ungarn | Jüdische Viertel in Budapest | JAG Galerie (DW/M. Ostwald)

Anyone can exhibit in the Jancsó Art Gallery

"I sensed it," Jancsó remembers. "This place shouldn't just be a studio, but also a gallery." His feeling was right. The Jancsó Art Gallery soon became a popular artists' hangout. It lies right on Kazinczy Street, one of the best-loved spots in the Jewish quarter. 

The Jewish quarter through the ages

In the past 15 years, the quarter has become very trendy: fashionable cafés and second-hand shops rub elbows with street art and dilapidated building façades. It's the charm of the ramshackle in which something new has arisen - shabby chic, if you will. 

However, the quarter has gone through dark times.

Between the 18th and 19th centuries it became the center of Jewish life in Budapest. In 1859, the Great Synagogue in Dohany Street was inaugurated. It's the largest in Europe and second-largest in the world. A year later, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was born right next door. Under the Nazi occupation, in 1944 the quarter became a ghetto for more than 70,000 Jews. 

Many of the old buildings were left empty after the war. They decayed increasingly until, in the early 2000s, the ruins were given a new life. 

Ungarn | Jüdische Viertel in Budapest | Ruinenbar Szimpla Kert (DW/M. Ostwald)

Not a slick designer bar: Szimpla Kert's décor is colorfully chaotic

The 'ruin bars' come into their own

"We collected old furniture and organized small film viewing evenings in the inner courtyard," says Orsolya Liptay from Szimpla Kert, the first of what are called "ruin bars" or "ruin pubs" here, and still the largest.

It now attracts more than 1.5 million visitors annually. A visit to Szimpla Kert (the name means "simple garden") is a voyage of discovery, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Spread over two stories there are bars with craft beer, cocktails and hamburgers, a shisha lounge and a stage for concerts, jam sessions and open mike evenings.  

The quirky furnishings are remarkable: a bathtub and an old East German Trabant car double as seating, painted Ikea trash bins become lampshades, and in one room, old television sets and radios hang among strings of lights from the ceiling. 

The clientele is also a mixed bag: young university students and tourists who immortalize themselves on the walls with marker pens, but also elderly locals who come to enjoy a pálinka - a Hungarian fruit brandy. "I think the people like the fact that not everything is as uniform as it is in other bars," says Orsolya Liptay. "With us, everything is allowed as long as it doesn't disturb anyone else." 

Szimpla Kert has set a trend that has transformed the entire Jewish quarter. Now the ruins of the past house large nightclubs (e.g., Fogas Ház), cosy bars (e.g., Köleves Kert), Mexican street food (e.g., Elláto), and slightly higher-priced restaurants ( e.g., Mazel Tov).

Promoting regional artists 

Szimpla Kert sees itself as a cultural hub. In addition to folk dance courses, a weekly market and  concerts, there are temporary art exhibitions, often in cooperation with Zoltán Jancsó's Art Gallery.

The photographs on show this summer are by Hungarian photographer and graphic designer Eszter Kazinczy. Her camera has captured monstrous concrete buildings in Prague in the 1960s architectural style known as brutalism - not exactly a byword for beauty.

Ungarn | Jüdische Viertel in Budapest | Künstlerin Eszter Kazinczy (DW/M. Ostwald)

Photographer Eszter Kazinczy in Szimpla Kert

"I wanted to show these buildings in another light," says Estzer Kazinczy. It's the 30-year-old's first photographic exhibition. She's especially pleased with the location. "Nowhere in Budapest is the arts scene as lively as in the Jewish quarter."  She also has a very personal connection to it. Kazinzcy Street, on which Szimpla Kert, Jancsó Art Gallery and other hotspots in the district lie, was named for one of her ancestors: Ferenc Kazinczy, an 18th century writer. 

Tourism boom: Blessing and curse

As a hip and trendy neighborhood, the Jewish quarter is also attracting party tourism. That brings in money but also poses problems. "Drug dealing has increased," says Orsolya Liptay about Szimpla Kert, "and there are lots of rowdy stag parties. That's why we need security." 

Ungarn | Jüdische Viertel in Budapest | Ruinenbar Fogas Haz (DW/M. Ostwald)

Cheap drinks, quirky nightclubs: The Jewish quarter is attracting increasing numbers of party tourists

Artist Zoltán Jancsó knows about the problems in the district. Despite that, he says his gallery might never have opened without the crowds. He approves of the change taking place here: "We've become more international, and that's good."

Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán, who is at daggers drawn with the EU over the refugee issue, sees it differently. To prevent refugees from entering the country, he has sealed it off almost hermetically and had barbed wire fences erected on the border to Serbia. 

Nonetheless, the Jewish quarter remains colorful, open and broad-minded. "We're no Orbáns," says Zoltán Jancsó.

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